The Pennsylvania state Ethics Commission’s built-in handicaps sharply limit its ability to police, or even effectively monitor, ethical breaches in the conduct of public business by lawmakers and other officials.
There are many rubs. Among them, the General Assembly controls the commission’s purse strings and four of the seven panel members are legislative appointments while the governor gets to name the other three.
Its list of accomplishments is on the sorry side; but the indifferent watchdog designation is not all due to lack of initiative.
The commission has made numerous proposals to the General Assembly to bolster its powers — 27 in all — which went nowhere. The fox who watches the henhouse holds a comfortable sinecure after all.
Meanwhile, instances which could be policed as conflicts of interest involving state lawmakers go virtually unmonitored.
A recent review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of lawmakers’ required financial interest statements shows more than half the state’s 203 House members have outside financial interests, along with 36 of 50 state senators.
Further, public transparency is not in the Ethics Commission’s playbook. It functions in secret, along with ethics committees operated by both Houses of the General Assembly. Any findings are mostly of an advisory nature. Up to now, it’s been a creature of the General Assembly, with most members having close ties to the legislature.
And while the panel can rule on ethical violations at the municipal level, investigating House or Senate members regarding possible conflict-of-interest matters remains verboten due to a constitutional restriction.
A replacement entity for the Ethics Commission, a Public Integrity Commission as proposed four years ago by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale when he was a member of the House, failed to gain traction. So did a similar attempt last June by a Luzerne County Democrat, Sen. John Yudichak. His bill would have created an agency with broader policing powers.
Clearly, public transparency regarding the individuals transacting people’s business in the General Assembly is quite far down lawmakers’ lists of priorities. It shouldn’t be.
The quicker strong enforcement powers can be implanted in the Ethics Commission’s mandate, along with transparency, the better the public trust will be served.